Dodge City Marshall? Tombstone City Marshall? Bounty Hunter? Gunslinger? Hero of the west?
None of the above.
The famous Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, Morgan and James ran gambling tables and pimped at the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone. In fact, they were known locally as the Pimp Brothers.
Bit O’ History. The brothers moved to Tombstone to trade on the miners who were working the silver mine. Many miners of the day were paid daily in coin, or if hired steady, paid weekly, so they were among the few at that time that had a steady income. Miners were notoriously ruffian. Transient by nature, miners generally spent most of their extra money in the saloons getting their 3 square meals a day for lonely men in about 2 hours. Unlike the Longbranch Saloon on Gunsmoke that came across almost as a family run hotel, most western saloons of the 1800’s generally offered 3 services: drinking, gambling and prostitution. No girls on a stage doing the Can-Can dance or flirting with the local Marshall in most establishments. Especially in classy or respected establishments early on, prostitutes most often were not allowed downstairs in the saloon because this would have been considered inappropriate. Later the “working women” could make appearances in certain areas of a Saloon to mingle with the cliental.
The Earp brothers, minus the youngest brother Warren, moved to Tombstone and staked the “gambling wall” of the Oriental Saloon on the northeast corner of 5th and Allen streets. Saloons of this era were generally long and narrow, often 2 story frame buildings laid out remarkably similar throughout the west. The bar was along 1 wall, the gaming tables along the opposite wall and the rooms called “cribs” were upstairs. The cribs were not hotel rooms as often depicted in the movies, but were very small closet size rooms that the “soiled doves” used to ply their trade. It was the responsibility of the Gamblers to make sure the customers had plenty to drink while gambling and waiting their turn for a tumble, (yes, it was often referred to as a tumble). A number system was often used to keep track of the cribs in use and to make sure no customer spent too much time with one of the girls. As any modern restaurant owner will tell you, turnover is the key to making money.
Footnote: The term Gambler has changed somewhat over the last century. Today a gambler is the person who is gambling, but in the old west era “Gambler” referred to the men who rented, owned or staked the gaming tables. Dealers were also referred to as a Gambler. Customers were called just that, customers.
In time, grifting (swindling) and gunplay became rampant. Tombstone was right on the edge of having no effective law enforcement after City Marshall Frank White was murdered by Curley Bill Brocius, and certainly there was little control over the local “trade”. The lack of law enforcement is what caused one of the Earp brothers to step forward and become a Tombstone City Marshall: it was Virgil, not Wyatt. Interestingly enough if Virgil needed to deputize one of the brothers, it was usually Morgan who helped, not Wyatt.
So were the Earp brothers considered lowlifes for their lifestyle? Not really. The oldest brother James’ wife was an active prostitute while he bartended and pimped for her before they moved to Tombstone, this while they were married. Wyatt’s common law wife Mattie was a former prostitute. Gamblers and Pimps were inline with Bartenders as far as respect in the community. A fair Gambler was also the enforcer of proper behavior in the saloon, not the bartender, so they often times inspired fear as well as respect. Gamblers were expected to purport themselves as professionals at all times and to dress accordingly. Gamblers often dressed very similarly in towns even at competing saloons and could easily be identified because of the style of their attire. The Earp brothers were no different, they dressed like all respected Gamblers in Tombstone.
Now – this little Bit O’ History begs other interesting questions like:
The Shootout at the OK Corral happened in the OK Corral, right? ……… wrong
The main gambling game at saloons was poker, right? ………. nope
Doc Holiday was an accurate shot and the fastest on the draw, right? …….. snicker
Wyatt was a respected former lawman, right? ……. meh
The Earp brothers lasting impression on Tombstone was from years of living there, right? …….. nah
A “cowboy” in the late 1800’s was a hero in a white hat with a Colt 6 shooter on the hip and Winchester rifle right? ……. sigh
The answers coming soon to a Holler near you.